Miss Mabel’s School for Girls (Network Series #1) – Katie Cross

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Summary:

Never underestimate the power of a determined witch.

Letum Wood is a forest of fog and deadfall, home to the quietly famous Miss Mabel’s School for Girls, a place where young witches learn the art of magic.

Sixteen-year-old Bianca Monroe has inherited a deadly curse. Determined to break free before it kills her, she enrolls in the respected school to confront the cunning witch who cast the curse: Miss Mabel.

Bianca finds herself faced with dark magic she didn’t expect, with lessons more dangerous than she could have ever imagined. Will Bianca have the courage to save herself from the curse, or will Miss Mabel’s sinister plan be too powerful?

Miss Mabel’s School for Girls is the first novel in The Network Series, an exciting new fantasy collection. A gripping tale about the struggle to survive, it will take you to a new place and time, one you’ll never want to leave.

Review:

Ah, magical boarding schools! I’m a sucker for this trope, especially when it is done well. And here it truly is. Yes, the beginning is a bit reminiscent of Goblet of Fire except a) Bianca volunteers and b) it’s surprisingly not drawn out at all.  Since I’m going with the Harry Potter references here, in a way Miss Mabel strikes me a bit like Dolores Umbridge: sugar and spice and respected on the outside, but an otherwise awful person.

I like the lingering sense of dread and helplessness that Bianca has throughout this book. She’s trapped, and not only does she know it, but so does Miss Mabel. She hates what she’s doing, but has no choice but to press on. You want to cheer Bianca on as she continues the fight, she’s likable. It also helps that the tension is broken up by scenes between her are friends she has amongst some of the other first year girls.

A final nice touch is that even though it’s clear that there’s going to be a sequel, the end of the first book is satisfying in its own right: there story of the first book is wrapped up well, but there’s nice momentum to go forward. It’s not something that’s always done well, especially amongst indie writers who sometimes just pick an ending point so they can start another book.

Finally, as an indie book, this is definitely nicely polished, which is obviously a plus.

Overall, if you like the premise, you’ll like the book. And if you want to support an indie, this is definitely one to consider.

Verdict: Buy It

Available: Now

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Blackguards – Tales of Assassins, Mercenaries and Rogues edited by J.M. Martin

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Summary:

ROGUES. ASSASSINS. MERCENARIES.

Coin is their master, and their trade, more often than not, is blood. These are BLACKGUARDS.

Whether by coin or by blood…YOU WILL PAY.

(You can see the full author listing here)

Review:

First off, hello again! Two weeks goes by so slow, and yet so fast 🙂 As I indicated in my last review, vacation didn’t mean no reading, it just meant slower reading and slower writing. Now I’m looking to get back into the swing of things, and I thought a good way to do that is to look at a Kickstarter-funded anthology that I first referenced late in 2014 when talking about my experience with the crowd-funding site and creative projects, like this one.

As of the date I wrote this, I have received the e-book version of the anthology. The physical books were supposed to start shipping on 3/31. As of 4/16 mine does not show as shipped and I am waiting for a response from the creator as to when I might get it. If anything relevant comes of that conversation, I’ll update it in time. Fulfillment has been good, not great. Though a bit slow (was quoted for 12/14, and it’s now 4/15 with no physical copies as of yet), the book did grow by 50% so the extra time is understandable. Communication hasn’t been the best I’ve ever sen, but he did include plenty of photographic evidence of things moving along, which does go a long way for proving the legitimacy of a project. As when I wrote that article, I believed that something like this: an anthology assembled by a professional editor with experience and stories written by professionals is the kind of project to support if you want the best odds that you’ll see something on the other end.

So anyway, Blackguards is what I expected the G.R.R.M – edited Rogues anthology to be: a collection of fantasy stories centered around roguish characters. Right off the bat, that may be enough for some to go check this out. Other pluses on a pure structural aspect: It’s also a collection of entirely new stories, a nice bonus as most anthologies are collections of previous works, and not new tales. I’ll also say that unlike some anthologies, the introductions to the stories are nice and brief, never outstaying their welcome. Authors got enough space to provide context for their tales or what series their stories are from, so new readers can track down the related works. It worked well. Finally, all the stories come with a title illustration. The art may or may not to be of your taste, but it’s a nice feature.

As for the content, I’d have to stay that overall, the quality is pretty dang high. As always, there are a few stories that won’t quite do it for you (and I admit, the two fan submissions that were included in the book were among the four or five that I skipped over), but generally speaking, it’s pretty good. My major complaint is that outside the one contemporary story and the two or three tales set in specifically places and times, most of the stories are very traditional faux-medieval fantasies, so over the course of the 750ish pages, there’s a feeling of sameness that can be a drag. I’d liked to have seen the inclusion of some urban fantasy or maybe some paranormal just to shake things up.

Overall, this is a very solid anthology series, and it’s an easy recommendation, especially for those who’ve never bought a collection like this and aren’t sure that it’s there thing. I think this group of authors did a good job writing stories that would be accessible to all, and not just their fans. Of course, if you haven’t been swayed by this kind of thing before, this won’t change your mind.

Verdict: Buy It. I’d probably recommend getting your hands on the e-book version if you have a reader. At 750 pages and 6 x 9 print size, this is a monster of a book, and an e-reader is just going to be more comfortable to read.

[Edited 5/11 – Having gone out in the last batch of books, my copy finally arrived today. Anyway, the quality of the book itself is very high and easily of the quality of anything else you’d find on the shelf. I particularly how the introductions are on an actual introduction page (as opposed to just a paragraph separated from the text) and the artwork definitely benefits from being on the larger format than my Paperwhite. All told it’s a job very well done and I feel I got my money’s worth. That said, my recommendation of the digital copy still stands, especially if you’re like me and do a lot of your reading while you are out and about: the book is just too big to comfortably travel with.]

Blog Tour: The Curse Servant (Dark Choir #2)

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Summary:

The one person standing between Hell… and an innocent girl… is a man without a soul.

A regular life isn’t in the cards for Dorian Lake, but with his charm-crafting business invigorated, and the prospect of a serious relationship within his grasp, life is closer to normal than Dorian could ever expect. In the heat of the Baltimore mayoral campaign, Dorian has managed to balance his arrangements with Deputy Mayor Julian Bright with his search to find his lost soul. Dorian soon learns of a Netherworker, the head of a dangerous West Coast cabal, who might be able to find and return his soul. The price? Just one curse.

Sounds easy… but nothing ever is for Dorian. A dark presence arrives in the city, hell-bent on finding Dorian’s soul first. Innocents are caught in the crossfire, and Dorian finds it harder to keep his commitments to Bright. When the fight gets personal, and the entity hits too close to home, Dorian must rely on those he trusts the least to save the ones he loves. As he tests the limits of his hermetic skills to defeat this new enemy, will Dorian lose his one chance to avoid damnation?

Review:

Okay. I don’t like to beg people. But I will.

Buy this book, people.

Long and short of it, this series has snuck its way into my heart and has become my favorite urban fantasy series. It just clicks with me on a level that I have trouble understanding, let alone explaining, but I think it comes down to this:

It’s grounded. It feels real. He feels real. Not the “I’m just a normal person living in a crazy world, honest!” vibe that most protagonists in these kind of novels have. He is mostly a normal guy, and the world is mostly normal: no vampires, no werewolves, no demon bars. He just happens to practice magic and have concerns about the attempts to gentrify his tenants out of the neighborhood. He’s as relatable as anyone in this genre will ever be.

Another plus? Although he’s certainly trying for romance and you want him to find someone, it’s by no means a large part of the story. It doesn’t take the story over, there are no sex scenes. Those things aren’t bad, but for those of us who like our urban fantasy without the romance, it’s a bonus.

All in all, this book and this series just work and they deserve more love.

Verdict: Buy It

Available: Now at Amazon

Born Human – A.J. Salem

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Summary:

After nearly unleashing hell on Earth, Gemma Pope is focused on one thing only – living a normal teenage life. But when a troop of tanks roll into Harrisport and a group of white coats start tinkering with a second chamber with intentions of prying it open, Gemma is forced to decide if she wants back in the game. Can Gemma let sleeping dogs lie and brush off more than one past betrayal?

Born Human is the thrilling sequel to Almost Demon and the second book in The Sigil Cycle series

Review:

Son, I am disappoint.

The first book was a fun little paranormal YA romp. This book had some promise, but two problems common to indie titles completely derailed this book.

First, the book is just too short. The estimated page length for this book was all of 173 pages. The first book was 310. You really do miss those extra 140 pages. Those pages let the story breathe, gave her place to develop characters. This book it goes from event to event to event, and that’s it. Don’t both reading this if you didn’t already <i>Almost Demon</i> because you’ll be completely lost. It seems the plan is for seven books, but I’m not entirely sure there’s enough plot to sustain a series of that length. Not every series needs to be that long, and I much rather a series be a really well developed trilogy than a stretched out septet.

The other major problem? This book is not properly edited. There were formatting markers left in. She used italics for telepathic conversations and I found at least one instance where she forgot to italicize. Conversations didn’t properly introduce characters, so it was difficult to tell who Gemma was talking to, and in bits of dialogue the pronoun for the person speaking would inevitably be capitalized. It was odd and incredibly distracting. I could go on, but I think I’ve made my point: this book was not ready to be published. I’m forgiving of a few minor copy errors here and there, but it’s just too much here.

As for the story, it’s fine. Gemma finds out that no matter how much she might wish ignoring the problems would make them go away, they don’t, and soon enough it’s back to summoning demons, this time to try and prevent the start of the apocalypse. There’s a twist at the end that isn’t really a twist if you’ve read enough books in the genre.

I enjoy the first one and was looking forward to this one. I don’t think I’ll be proceeding from this point. Technical issues aside, I really didn’t like how breakneck this book was, and I suspect that won’t be changing going forward.

I’m really am bummed that this had to be this way. I really do love finding and sharing great indie titles and this just isn’t one.

Verdict: Skip It

Available: Now

ARC Review: Gods and Monsters: Mythbreaker – Stephen Blackmoore

21412497eARC provided by the publisher through NetGalley in exchange for fair review

Summary:

The follow-up to Chuck Wendig’s Unclean Sprits is a stand alone tale of new gods facing up to the old ones with humanity in the middle!

Growing up an orphan, Louie had conversations with “invisible friends,” could see patterns in the world that no one else could see. In other times he would have been a prophet – someone to make people believe in the gods. But he grew out of the visions, and then into crime as a drug runner.

Now thirty-five and burnt out, he’s had enough. With access to the mob’s money, he plans to go out in a big way. Only he can’t. A broken down car, a missed flight; it’s bad enough being hunted by the mob, but the gods – kicked out of the Heavens, stuck on Earth without worshippers – need someone who can tell their stories, and they aren’t letting him go.

And there are new gods on the scene, gods of finance and technology, who want him too. Caught between the mob and two sets of rival gods, Louie hatches a plan that will probably get him killed if it doesn’t get him out.

Review:

This was a great surprise. A Paranormal Urban Fantasy about a Chronicler (aka Prophet) named Fitz. As the only (relatively) sane Chronicler at a time when the old gods are dying due to a lack of followers, when word of him gets out, all of the gods want to use his voice to restore themselves to their former glory. Stories of gods dying as they become more obscure is hardly anything new, but I do like how he pairs it with the rise of new gods for the modern times: a trinity comprised of Money (goes by Big, changes forms the way most people change their gum), the Internet (represented by the Amandas, a series of clones that download information at will, she reminds me of Trinity from The Matrix)  and of course El Jefe or The Man (who uses Agents – not unlike Agent Smith) to do his dirty deeds. I’m especially fond of the Amandas, one of the few gods to not come off as a complete dick. The other Goddess that grows on me is Medeina, a minor Goddess of the Hunt who goes from antagonist to aiding our hero. There’s also some nice quieter moments between Medeina and the human Sam (a woman), one of Fitz’ friends from his drug running days that also give the story some needed humanity.

The action moves quickly, story is doled out at a good pace and is just a fun book. As an Angelino, I really love how he represents Los Angeles here – from hitting Thousand Oaks (and a nice joke from Medeina who mourns it looks nothing like the name implies) to Getty Villa, to downtown and Hawaiian Gardens. It’s always great to see Los Angeles as it is, and not just as we portray ourselves on television.

If I have any complaints, it’s that the ending feels a bit too neat, a bit too easy, but it’s so satisfying, that you’re willing it slide.

All in all, I enjoyed myself way more than I thought I would, and I can easily recommend checking this out.

Note: I recommend this book for the 17+ crowd. The violence, language and drug use would easily translate as a hard R or a TV MA rating. Those of you sensitive to such things might want to give it a pass.

Verdict: Buy Now

Available: December 2nd

Review: Cupcakes, Trinkets and Other Deadly Magic (The Dowser #1) – Meghan Ciana Doidge

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Summary:

If you’d asked me a week ago, I would have told you that the best cupcakes were dark chocolate with chocolate cream cheese icing, that dancing in a crowd of magic wielders — the Adept — was better than sex, and that my life was peaceful and uneventful. Just the way I liked it.

That’s what twenty-three years in the magical backwater of Vancouver will get you — a completely skewed sense of reality. Because when the dead werewolves started showing up, it all unraveled … except for the cupcake part. That’s a universal truth.

Note: 68,000 words

Review:

Cupcakes, Trinkets and Other Deadly Magic is a very short paranormal novel that’s fun to read while it lasts, but can leave you wanting for more due to its underdeveloped word.

Jade is half-human/half-witch cupcake baker who occasionally dabbles in magic by stringing together magical objects as a kind of found-object art project (the trinkets of the title). One day her trinket is found on the corpse of a dead vampire and she quickly finds herself drawn in to the world of vampires and wolves as she rushes to solve the mystery of who is killing these supes so that they can be stopped.

The brevity is important to mention here: the book barely clocks in at just over 200 pages (the remaining pages are taken up with a sample of the sequel) and I think the book suffers for it. This is a world inhabited by witches and wolves and vampires. We meet ONE vampire over the course of the book. We meet three wolves. We meet no other witches than her adopted sister, and at the very end, her mom and grandmother. Why not take some time to show us the rest of this world? At one point Jade mentions that witches don’t run with wolves. Why not? We don’t know. It’s just something Jade says. We don’t know what vampires can do: what we do learn is from Kitt negating myths that Jade has learned. Good paranormal books need ground rules if they’re going to succeed.

Better still: when Jade is examining one of the victims, Jade notes that she “could have loved him.” Their interaction to that point had been a smoothie date after a yoga class where he’d show up to play bodyguard, and that’s about it. Why not show them actually going on a date? Her feelings would have made actual sense then.

Most frustrating is that there’s a mystery surrounding what exactly she is: though we get some answers on her magic (albeit perhaps a bit dissatisfying because the book doesn’t properly explain about why said talent is dangerous) we don’t get answers on what she is (hint: the half-human part isn’t true) and what’s worse, it seems like others know what she is and just aren’t telling. It doesn’t feel like a mystery, it feels like information is being deliberately withheld so that you’ll pick up the next title. It’s especially frustrating because at one point she’s told that she could be strong enough for the a packmaster to help him hold his pack, but how? She’s no Anita Blake. We kind of need to know if this is going to make sense.

Finally, the overall mystery isn’t much of one. I literally found myself going “Oh, it’s going to be [character]” and was 100% spot on. There’s also a bit with some stools that sticks out like a sore thumb for how often they’re mentioned, only for it to have actually played a part in the mystery.

I had fun while reading this, but its underdeveloped nature makes it hard to recommend very strongly. Fans of the genre might enjoy this, if you’re looking for something quick and breezy, but newbies to the genre should look elsewhere.

Verdict: A weak Borrow It

Available: Now

Note: As of today (11/16) the first book is free for Kindle and Nook users. At that price, I’d say go ahead and check it out because you have nothing to lose. I just don’t know it’s worth paying the $3.99 to continue the series. I will say Skip It for the paperback: it’s not worth $11.00.

ARC Review: The Last Changeling – Chelsea Pitcher

cover48549-mediumeARC provided through NetGalley in exchange for fair review

Summary:

Elora, the young princess of the Dark Faeries, plans to overthrow her tyrannical mother, the Dark Queen, and bring equality to faeriekind. All she has to do is convince her mother’s loathed enemy, the Bright Queen, to join her cause. But the Bright Queen demands an offering first: a human boy who is a “young leader of men.”

A Dark Princess In Disguise . . .

To steal a mortal, Elora must become a mortal—at least, by all appearances. And infiltrating a high school is surprisingly easy. When Elora meets Taylor, the seventeen-year-old who’s plotting to overthrow a ruthless bully, she thinks she’s found her offering . . . until she starts to fall in love.

Review:

I don’t know how else to break this to you, so I shall be blunt.

The Last Changeling is not a faerie tale.

Oh, certainly Elora is a faerie (though, I would note that she is not a changeling – a glamor is not the same thing. For changelings and faery see Cargill’s Dreams and Shadows) and she does tell a tale of the faery in this story, but only in the last 20% of the book does anything related to the faery become relevant at all. As the book starts with Elora already out in the mortal world, we never spend time with the fae proper. Heck, when the fae do come to play in the last bit of the book, it’s in the mortal realm. Someone looking for a YA story about the Dark Court is going to be disappointed, because everything we learn about the courts are told in long exposition sequences, in the form of a story that Elora is telling Taylor. It’s the very definition of tell, not show and the book would have benefited tremendously from starting the book in the faery realm and then moving it to the mortal. By doing so, Elora’s fight would have picked up a much greater sense of urgency and you’d been more vested in the fight. By having it all explained as a story, the reader remains detached. All told, with not a lot of editing, you could excise the the faery elements and be left with a contemporary story.

So how does the contemporary story hold up?

Not that well.

Everyone at this school comes off as one dimensional. The bully is Evil. The outcast girl is a vegan goth. There’s heavy handedness surrounding discrimination towards the LGBT community – the bully gets his parents and the parents of the rich kids to call and convince the principal that the prom should be for “traditional” couples only because Taylor joined the Gay-Straight alliance. This is after the bully more or less forced Taylor to resign by having him and the other kids insinuate that he was touching them – and the obviously homophobic coach buying into it. It already feels dated and lacks any subtlety, especially for a book coming out in a time when gay marriage bans are falling left and right. Things are far from perfect for LGBT kids in high school, it’d been nice if a more delicate hand had been taken and some nuance let into the story.

As for Taylor and Elora? Eh. They’re there. There are hints of an interesting backstory with Taylor – but they’re never fully developed. Elora’s backstory, as I mentioned, is all told in flashback, and she never comes off as strange enough to believe that she never lived amongst humans. She just comes off as a little strange, but not alien, which is what she should have.

All told, while the book is technically proficient, there’s just not much there to recommend it. It’s clear that this book wanted to be a YA romance with some fantastic elements. But with the fantasy elements lacking and the romance not feeling that romantic, the whole book just feels disappointing. I’m sure there’s some good faery-centric stories for the YA crowd, but unfortunately, this isn’t it.

Verdict: Skip It

Available: November 8th